United in hate: New Yorkers celebrate a victory in the war on terror in 2011. Photo: Timothy Fadek/Corbis.
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How the west was lost: Frank Furedi’s First World War

The Great War’s greatest legacy is uncertainty and a never-ending search for meaning.

First World War: Still No End in Sight
Frank Furedi
Bloomsbury, 288pp, £18.99

A century ago, the First World War tore apart western claims that peace and progress were the fruits of its civilisation. We are still suffering from the fallout of the loss of certainty and cultural self-belief that the war provoked. That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Frank Furedi’s provocative assessment of the current state of the west, as it struggles to find a set of agreed values, even a common vocabulary, to overcome the loss of ideology and the fragmentation of culture.

Although it is not Furedi’s main purpose, his argument also helps to explain the ambiguity behind current plans to mark the anniversary, which cannot be an uncontroversial celebration or commemoration, because it must confront awkward issues about pacifism and anti-war sentiment both at the time and since.

Ever since 1914, claims Furedi, the west has faced a “perpetual war in search of meaning”. The efforts to discover meaning, particularly the rise of ideologies that violently insisted on just one common set of values, proved self-defeating. Fascism and the far right were entirely deflated by the Second World War (though they are more alive in modern-day Europe and the US than Furedi realises); the communist enterprise fizzled out in 1989 when even the leadership realised that there was no value left in the parroted slogans of Leninism

What is striking, Furedi argues, is that even the more benign ideological movements of the past century, from Keynesianism to social democracy, have lost their power to inspire. Indeed, ever since the First World War the west has been drifting towards a position where culture wars cancel out any certainties and beliefs, and leave people cynically unprepared to accept anything at face value. For proof, he cites an American opinion poll that found at least a third of respondents willing to agree that 9/11 was the result of a government conspiracy.

Furedi examines the search for meaning across the whole 20th century. Wars, he argues, are an important way of cementing at least a temporary sense of meaning, since victory in the world wars and cold war was seen as an important end in itself. Wars can also give definite, if brief, endorsement of a nominally shared culture, whether that is the German pursuit of a new Germanic civilisation to protect its cultural values (perhaps the greatest irony of all for a state bent on genocide), or the vague Anglo-American pursuit of a fresh democratic start in 1945 after dropping millions of tons of bombs on the very peoples they hoped to liberate. The cold war was even more important as a source of proxy meaning, since it provided the west with an instant enemy and fuelled the assumption that anything the Soviet bloc did must by definition be the opposite of what the west stood for.

Furedi sees the attempt to find certainty in war, in the most violent of centuries, as simply a postponement of a wider crisis of meaning and identity for the west. Moreover, the current war on terror has shown the limits of the use of war as an instrument to summon up a shared cultural identity. The war on terror divides communities, provokes internal tensions and is not demonstrably about preserving “our way of life”, even if a common agreement could be found about what that is.

He highlights the efforts to find a language to mask the reality of this war by shifting the acronyms from Bush’s GWOT (global war on terrorism) to Obama’s OCO (overseas contingency operation). The war on terror paradoxically needs its own terror to function effectively, whether that is concentration camps at Guantanamo Bay or drone strikes on Pakistani villages. This is a war devoid of real meaning, a long war with no end in sight, mimicking the crisis that Furedi believes the First World War opened up a century ago.

The end of the real wars in 1989, with the collapse of communism, allowed the perennial culture wars of the west to take centre stage. In the absence of ideologies in their earlier 20th-century sense, the west has faced a crisis of self-belief and authority. Culture clashes expose the absence of any consensual agreement about the values that animate modern western societies, while the shift from a “way of life” to the current obsession with individual “lifestyles” is evidence, Furedi believes, of a flight from politics and old-fashioned civic culture. Belief in progress, economic individualism, the family, the virtues of the parliamentary system and the rational character of modern institutions might still be used occasionally as rhetoric by the political elite but people now see through it.

Furedi identifies a profound cynicism and self-absorption as characteristic of modern western populations, leaving people with a failure of meaning in their lives beyond the mundane and the hedonistic. He might well have added that the revolution in just the past decade that has put tablets and smartphones into millions of hands has accelerated the western retreat into the inner zone and the collapse of real-world civic or political engagement. Virtual worlds construct a new and potentially dangerous reality. In video games such as Call of Duty, youngsters now zap the Taliban electronically while having no understanding whatsoever of why small numbers of western soldiers are zapping the Taliban for real.

Furedi puts much of the blame for this situation, which he clearly regrets, on the feebleness of liberal democracy’s efforts to define itself. This was conspicuous in the interwar years, when fascism and communism seemed infinitely more exciting and exacting than old-fashioned liberalism. Furedi cites a meeting in Paris in 1937, called to form an international network that would define what the modern liberal stood for and save it from extinction. The particpants argued about neoliberalism, individualism, liberalism of the left – but could find no agreed definition.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when liberal politicians were confronted with youth rebellion (or, in Germany and Italy, hard-headed youth violence) and economic slowdown, it was even more evident that liberal democracy had a poorly articulated sense of its core values. Today’s liberals find it difficult to square the circle of extensive and obtrusive state control with the old-fashioned utilitarian liberalism inherited from John Stuart Mill. In the absence of that certainty, Furedi suggests that we have what Alvin Gouldner called a New Class (though class may not be the right word) that wants to control everything in a narrow, technocratic sense. We face government by a fussy, rule-obsessed administration rather than through a liberal and liberalising consensus.

This is certainly a thesis worth taking seriously. But it is not without some evident drawbacks. Though ostensibly rooted in the history of the century since the First World War, the argument is, in reality, historically abstract. There are obvious differences in the way western societies have responded to the challenges posed since 1918. Furedi’s account is too general to absorb these contrasts and, for all the references to a range of nations, his argument fits best with Britain and the US and their prolonged crisis about the core values for a pluralistic, apparently democratic state.

The abstraction extends to the populations under discussion, which, as he well knows, were and still are socially, ethnically and culturally diverse. It may well be the case that anxiety about meaning is the condition of the main body of the western intellectual elite but it is by no means clear that it extends to all sectors of the population, many of whom would not be pre­occupied with the way that identity is shaped by intellectual discourse or, in the case of authoritarian states, by the many manifestations of propaganda.

There is also the problem of how the “west” is defined, since its consumerist ambitions and policies of human-rights entitlement are exported globally, though not always with success. Does the search for meaning include Japan, with its strong links with global consumerism? Does it include Turkey, keen to become a European member but distrusted by many Europeans precisely because its “identity” is regarded as alien? The west in Furedi’s discourse is also something of an abstraction while the other, the “non-west” is surely important in shaping how western populations now view their own identity.

Indeed Furedi’s insistence that the current crisis is a domestic problem – caused by internal culture clashes about meaning and value – sidesteps the most important issue today, which is how the west will define itself in relation to the new power bases in China, India or Latin America. The attempt to export “western” democracy to the Middle East has been one long story of disasters; now the west will have to think about how new global players may try to export their culture to the west, an ironic reversal of the world a century ago.

Finally, what is not clear from Furedi’s argument is why a plurality of cultures or the absence of meaning should be a concern at all. The figure hanging over all this discussion is the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (oddly absent from this account), whose challenge to the bourgeois values and Christian hypocrisy of his age still informs intellectual life today. Shared values and political consensus can be stifling and coercive. If millions of Americans believe in creationism and millions do not, this does not mean that liberal consensus is doomed. It simply means that in a democracy where tolerance (the keystone of Mill’s liberalism) is a central value, there ought to be real differences.

It is worth reflecting on what might have been if the First World War had not happened and western certainty and self-assertion had remained unchallenged. A perennial uncertainty and self-awareness may not have been such a bad legacy after all.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilisation, 1919-1939” (Penguin, £16.99)

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

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Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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